Identification: Bamileke is a collective term referring to a loose aggregation of some 100 kingdoms or chiefdoms of the eastern Grassfields in the western province of Cameroon. The kingdoms are of varying size but have similar cosmology and social and political structures; they speak distinct, although related languages.
“Bamileke” Derive from a mispronunciation of a Bali (western Grassfields) interpreter’s designation, “Mba Lekeo,” or “the people down there,” which has been associated with the region since at least 1910, possibly since 1890s. Currently, Bamileke people most often refer to themselves as "Bamileke" when speaking to a non-Bamileke, and as a member of their specific kingdoms, villages or tribe when speaking with other Bamileke.
Location: The Bamileke region extends roughly from 5° to 6° N and 10° to 11° E. The region is 6,196 km² long and is bounded by the Bamboutos Mountains on the northwest and the Noun River on the southeast. The Bamileke region is made out of seven administrative divisions within the western provinces: Bamboutos, Haut-Nkam, Hauts-Plateaux, Koung-Khi, Mifi, Menoua, and Nde. Its irregular, hilly relief and great differences in soil quality characterize the region. Valleys, which have the richer soils, are mixed savanna and forest. Basalt and other volcanic rocks are common. The high-altitude prairie, for which the Grassfields are named, consists of non-cultivated land and at average elevation of 1,400 meters. Temperatures range from 13° C to 23° C, and rainfall amounts to more than 160 centimeters per year. The dry season lasts from mid-November to mid-February, with a fluctuating rainy season occurring during the remaining months.
Demography: No census data exist on the Bamileke as a people, but scholars estimate that they constitute about 25 to 30 percent of Cameroon’s diverse population. The overall population of the Bamileke in the late 1980s was approximately 2 million, 1 million of whom resided on the Bamileke plateau. Average population density is 200 km² but ranges from 15 to 400 inhabitants per km². The Bamileke region represents a pocket of relatively high fertility within the central African “infertility belt.” The birth rate is 49 per thousand, and completed fertility is 6.3. Infant mortality is 158 per thousand; life expectancy is 39.9 at birth, increasing to 49.2 at age 5.
The Bamileke area has served as a labor reserve since the early colonial period. Emigration, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century and intensify in the 1930s, has greatly influenced Bamileke demography and social life. The order, intensity, and scale of emigration have varied over time. Most immigrants were Bana during German colonization; Bafang, Bafoussam, Bangangte, and Dschang in the 1940s; and Bangangte in the 1950s and 1960s. In urban centers and peripheral regions of agricultural colonization, Bangangte continue to provide the largest numbers of emigrants. The predominantly male migration continues, as youths search for jobs to earn cash for consumer goods, bride-wealth, and to gain titles. Kingdom-specific voluntary associations play an important role in the social life of urban immigrants and help link them socially, politically, and economically to their place of origin. Many Bamileke maintain land in their home areas “ a foot in the land of the ancestors”, and movement back and forth between urban centers and rural villages is common.
Linguistic Affiliation: Bamileke languages, which are tonal, belong to the Grasslands Bantu Group of Broad Bantu languages. While some scholars list 24 Bamileke languages, nearly every kingdom names its own dialect as a separate language. Bamileke languages are not always mutually intelligible. Bordering kingdoms may speak languages that differ only slightly, but, because of intense migration over the past three hundred years, geographic proximity is not always a predictor of mutual intelligibility. Many contemporary Bamileke also speak French, and quite a few speak West Coast Pidgin and/or English.
The earliest Bamileke kingdoms were formed during the sixteenth century, as a result of a complex dynamic conquest, ruse, and shifting allegiance when population movements in Adamoua pushed the “pre-Tikar” Ndobo into the Bamileke plateau. Succession disputes, the search foe new hunting grounds, and demographic pressure led to the emergence of the new kingdoms from the first core polities. The number, size, and shape of Bamileke kingdoms continued to change until European colonization, when interkingdom warfare was curtailed and the limits of territories were frozen at borders partly determined by the colonizers. This history of shifting borders, alliances, and the influx of refugees from neighboring kingdoms makes each Bamileke kingdom a political composite of diverse peoples owing allegiance to the king and the established royal institutions.
During the precolonial era, the Bamileke fought wars among their constituent kingdoms as well as with the neighboring Nso and Bamoun. Relations among kingdoms included economic exchange and corporation as well as territorial belligerence. German expeditions into Bamileke territory in 1902 and 1904 found a rich and cultivated territory, maintaining multiple commercial relations as evinced by paths and markers.
The colonial era began on 12 July 1884, when coastal Duala chiefs signed a treaty with the German Empire. Colonial German penetration into the Bamileke highlands began in the 1890s and became increasingly important over the next decade. Between 1914 and 1916, Cameroon was conquered by French and British forces. France subsequently governed nearly all Bamileke Kingdoms under League of Nations mandate and, following World War II, under United Nations Trusteeship. Independence was achieved in 1960.Political steps towards independence, especially the outlawing of the trade union based union based Union des Population Camerounaises (UPC), led to civil war in the Bamileke region from 1958 through 1972. Bamileke refers to this as a time of troubles; others refer to it as the Bamileke rebellion. Both personal and political scars remain. The region continues under a nominal state of emergency. Popular discourse surrounding more recent political and economic turmoil in Cameroon makes reference to history of civil and interethnic strife.
Bamileke kingdoms are divided into quarters, villages, compounds and houses. The quarter is a territorial unit of traditional kingdom government. Both “quarters” and villages are units of Cameroonian state administration. Family compounds may be monogamous (consisting of a conjugal house, a kitchen, and an outhouse) or polygynous (consisting of the husband’s house surrounded by either a single semicircle or two rectangular “quarters’’ of his wives’ kitchen houses. All Bamileke royal compounds are built on slopes and follow a prescribed layout. Below an entry gate made of spines of the raffia palm (“bamboo”) and either thatch or corrugated iron, a wide path (the “foot” of the compound) divides the wives’ quarter, each quarter ruled by titled queens. A second gate leads to the king’s palace, a variety of meeting houses of secret societies, a traditional court building, and a sacred water source used only for the king’s meals. The area above the second gate is considered dry and infertile; the area below it is regarded as moist, rich, fertile, and spiritually complicated. Each wife in a polygamous compound lives in her kitchen-house with her children. Both boys and girls live in their mother’s compound until they go away to school or get married. Child fosterage is common. Most kitchen-houses have one room, with a hearth; usually they are built of mud bricks and roofed with thatch or tin. Previously, houses were square, constructed of raffia bamboo, with sliding doors and thatched, conical roofs. Rural compounds were surrounded by fences or hedges during the precolonial and early colonial periods, but now rarely are.
Before the UPC-related civil war, settlements were dispersed, and compounds were built near cultivated land. During the time of troubles, the French authorities resettled Bamileke in villages along roads.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities: Rural Bamileke are primarily farmers; they also keep goats and sheep. The staples are maize (the preferred food) and plantains, supplemented by beans and peanuts. Cassava is used primarily to bridge the hungry time between harvests. Tomatoes, onions, pumpkins, and condiments are grown on the ends of rows. Farms are tilled with iron hoes. The major cash crop is coffee. Some Bamileke in lower elevations grow cocoa, and in higher elevations European vegetables such as potatoes, eggplants, and leeks for local and urban markets.
French agricultural policy from 1920 to 1950 favored production of food crops, and many Bamileke kings, fearing a loss of control over the fortunes of their subjects, discouraged the production of coffee. This influence of colonial and indigenous agricultural policy encouraged the small-scale commercialization of women’s food crops, starting in the 1930s, as well as male labor.
Trade: Trade, which has always been important for both women and men, is conducted in local markets organized around and eight-day weekly cycle, as well as in long-distance interethnic exchange. Bamileke traded agricultural goods, game, and small livestock for salt, palm oil, and iron hoes. Weekly local and regional market centers grew during the colonial and postcolonial eras. In these centers, both local and European goods were bought or bartered. One of these market centers, Bafoussam, has grown into a bustling city. Bamileke Immigrants are known as aggressive entrepreneurs. They are active in many sectors and often dominate the taxi and transportation industries of the urban area.
Division of Labor: Since precolonial times, women have been primary producers of food crops (maize, beans, and peanuts). Men have been responsible for tree crops, clearing women’s fields, and building fences. Men’s cash-crop cultivation of coffee and cocoa, shopkeeping, and taxi and truck driving have replaced precolonial involvement in animal husbandry and war. Hunting, once the subject of heroic tales of the founders of the dynasties, is now practiced only occasionally; hunters work at night and must seek the local king’s permission.
Land Tenure: Within each Bamileke kingdom, the king (called fo, fon, or mfen in various Bamileke languages) is the titular owner of the land. Quarter chiefs distribute usufruct rights to male heads of patrilineages. This lineage heads then distributes plots of land to their wives, their noninheriting brothers, and their sisters. Inheritance of usufruct rights is impartible; only one son is heir, often leaving his siblings to seek their fortune in urban centers. With increasing population pressure and increasing privatization of landownership, lineage heads now often fail to award plots of land to their sisters.
Kin Groups and Descent: Bamileke practice a system of dual descent, in some kingdoms accompanied by institutionalized relations among a diffuse uterine groups (pam nto’ in Bangangte, atsen’ndia among the Bangwa-Fontem). Most anthropologists studying various Bamileke groups have emphasized agnatic relations. At the center of descent groups are lines of heirs and heiresses who inherit the property, titles, and skull custodianship of their ascendants. Each lineage head chooses a single heir or heiress, who “becomes” that person in terms of titles in customary associations, as well as rights and duties toward all dependents. Patrilineal descent determines village membership and the inheritance of titles, lands, compound, and wives. For nonheirs, the obligation to sacrifice to patrilineal skulls ceases after two generations. Matrilineal descent determines inheritance of titles, movable property, and moral and legal obligation to lineage members. In theory, the obligation to sacrifice to matrilineal skulls does not diminish with structural distance; in practice, facing misfortune often motivates people to renew their obligations to matrilineal ancestresses. Bamileke have no clans.
Kinship Terminology: Bamileke refer to their father and his heir by the same term (ta), and to their mother and her heiress by the same term (ma). Cousins are addressed by sibling terms, but both they and half-siblings are distinguished in everyday conversation. Special sibling terms indicate birth order (e.g., firstborn) and relation to twins (e.g., born following a set of twins). A complex system of praise names, indicating the village of origin of a person’s mother or father, with variations in alternating generations, are important terms of address in the Bamileke kingdom of Nde Division. Joking relations of fictive, namesake kin are sometimes generated from the use of these praise names. Skill in using praise names is an important marker cultural competence. Distinctions between “deracinated” urban dwellers and “traditional”rural relatives are becoming increasingly important.
Marriage: Marriage is exogamous, preventing individuals with patrilineal links up to fourth generation from marring, and preventing marriage with any matrilineal kin. Two forms of exchange govern relations between wife givers and wife receivers. In bride-price marriage, the groom gains reproductive, sexual, and domestic rights by giving gifts of palm oil, goats, blankets, firewood, and money to the family of his bride. In “ta nkap” marriage, no bride price is exchanged between the bride’s father and the groom. The bride’s father retains rights over the marriage and patrilineal identity of his granddaughters, thus becoming their ta nkap (father by money). These rights of ta nkap can be inherited, and are a way of capitalizing on matrimonial rights. Although outlawed by the French 1927 and 1928, the practice continues. In addition to these two traditional marriage options, contemporary Bamileke may choose Christian marriage with or without bride-wealth, marriage by a justice of the peace, elopement, and single parenthood.
Traditional Bamileke marriage is virilocal, and sons attempt to settle near their father if there is enough land. Polygamy is a goal that is increasingly difficult to achieve, especially on a grand scale, because of the inflation of bride-price and changing ideas about conjugal relations. The amount of bride-price, although higher for women with education, seems primarily dependent upon the groom’s ability to pay. The term for marriage (na’a ndah) is “to cook inside,” condensing the symbolism of the married woman’s confinement to her kitchen, where she literally cooks her husband’s meal and figuratively “cooks” (procreates) children.
Domestic unit: A married man is the jure head of a household consisting of his wife or wives and their children. In polygamous compounds, co-wives have separates dwellings. Although sometimes contentious and competitive, relations among co-wives can be warm and compassionate. In royal compounds, older co-wives are assigned to younger cowives as foster mothers. Full siblings feel strong ties of solidarity, whereas half-siblings are often in competition with each other for attention and inheritance.
Inheritance: Land and real estate are inherited patrilineally and impartibly. Titles are inherited according to both matrilineal and patrilineal rules of descent (see “Land Tenure” and “Kin Groups and Descent”.)
Socialization: Social roles are learned through example and through stories told around the mother’s hearth at mealtimes. Bamileke report particularly warm relations among full siblings, and refer to hearthside commensality and storytelling as the source of this solidarity. Although mothers play a primary role in child rearing, small children may be left with older siblings or co-wives while their mothers do other work. After age 6, Bamileke consider child fosterage an appropriate strategy to deal with scarce resources and to help the child learn to interact with a variety of personalities. There are no formal group-initiation ceremonies at puberty. Boys are now usually circumcised soon after birth. In the past, girls whose families could afford it could spend up to six months in seclusion (nja), eating fattening foods and learning about marriage and sexuality from female kin. Elderly Bamileke say that school has replaced this custom.
Social Organization: Bamileke kingdoms are highly stratified, with kings and queen mother at the apex, followed by various levels of title-holding nobility, royal retainers, commoners. This system of social stratification exists alongside differences in wealth and power based upon commercial and educational success and participation in national party politics. Differences in wealth, formal education, and religious affiliation have become increasingly important.
Political Organization: In the precolonial era, Bamileke kings had control over the life and death of their subjects. They were aided by the nobility, especially the “nkam be’e” (the council of nine highest nobles), royal retainers, and members of secrets societies. Young men were organized into warrior associations such as “mandjo”. In postcolonial Cameroon, Bamileke kings are still counseled by nkam be’e and other societies of nobles. They have jurisdiction over civil but not criminal court cases in rural areas. They have official duties and received salaries as justices of the peace, maintaining vital records of their rural subjects. There is no overarching Bamileke political Organization, neither traditionally nor in terms of contemporary party politics. As in the past, Bamileke practice active interkingdom diplomacy.
Social Control: Disputes depending upon their seriousness, were originally resolved by the lineage head, the quarter chief, or the king, each in consultation with other elders or notables. Oracles who made use of chickens, earth spiders, or poison ordeals were often consulted. Most of these forms of dispute resolution now exist alongside the Cameroonian court system, which in the Bamileke region is fashioned after French statutory law.
Conflict: Bamileke kingdoms raided and warred against each other and against non-Bamileke neighbors. This activity nearly stopped awing to a pax Germanica by the 1905, but full cessation of armed hostilities was only achieved in the early 1930s. New conflicts arose during the struggle for independence. More recent conflicts are associated with a struggle for multiparty democracy following the end of the cold war, and extend beyond the Bamileke area.
Religious Beliefs: Prior to missionization, Bamileke believed in a creator God, “nsi”. Some groups believed in local deities relating to natural features (streams, groves of trees, rocks) and personal spirits. All Bamileke believed in the power of ancestors, through the metonym of the ancestral skull “tu”, to cause good or bad fortune for their descendants. Matrilineal ancestresses were believed to be especially prone to anger. Although these beliefs persist, many Bamileke are now members of Christian churches.
The dominance of two major denominations, Catholic and the Eglise Evangelique du Cameroun (of French Calvanist origin), varies by location. The Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness, and Adventist churches are active in the Bamileke area, but to a lesser degree.
Religious Practitioners: Religion and politics are not easily distinguished. The Bamileke king is considered divine and responsible for the health and well being of his subjects. He is aided in his religious duties by the “badansi” (the men of the house of god), a secret society. Three other groups are also important in religious practice. Linear heads, as custodians of ancestral skulls, control access to propitiary rites. Diviners and spirit mediums are active in determining the need for ceremonies and in healing. Healers and witches use the same supernatural power, “ka”, but to good or bad ends.
Ceremonies: Life-cycle ceremonies include burying the placenta and umbilical cord by the mother’s kitchen at birth, circumcision for boys and prepuberty seclusion for girls both termed “nja”, burial, and death celebrations performed approximately one year after death. Death celebrations (funerailles) are public displays of wealth, of the value of the deceased, and of the new heir. They mark the end of a period of mourning, when the deceased has completed the transition to ancestorhood.
Royal rituals enact the transformation of a new king from a mere mortal to a divine being, the embodiment of the office of kingship. These rituals include capturing the new king, and enclosing him and two of his queens in a special temporary structure (la’ kwam) for nine weeks. During this time they are fed medicines and taught their new duties. A ritual complete with the symbolism of birth and feeding, marks the emergence of the king from “la’ Kwa”. He fully becomes king only after he has sired at least one male and one female child.
Arts: Bamileke are famous for their wooden sculpture, masks, and stools (often ornamented with beads and cowries), and carved house posts. Motifs include human figures (ancestors and, occasionally, witches) and animals (representing such qualities as royalty, wisdom, or fertility), as well geometric designs. Baskets, mats, and bags, woven of raffia-palm fibers are common and beautifully executed household items. The Bamileke blue and white royal display cloth is distinctive. Although some centers of tourist art exist, these are most developed in neighboring Bamoun and the western Grassfields. Music played by the Bamileke secret societies utilizes drums, balofons, and whistles. This music has been incorporated into the repertoires of some contemporary Cameroonian pop musicians.
Medicine: Bamileke traditional medical practitioners include herbalists, diviners, spirit mediums, and religious specialists. Many healers combine divination with herbal medicine. In the past, diviners, spirit mediums and religious specialists had higher status than herbalists. This relation is now reversing, along with a trend toward more individual and free-for-service treatment. Contemporary Bamileke seek medical assistance from both private and public hospitals and clinics as well as from their rich array of traditional practitioners (see “Religious Practitioners”).
Death and Afterlife: Death may be attributed to natural causes, but in most cases Bamileke use divination to answer the questions why this person, why now, and who did it? Varying forms of witchcraft figure prominently in causes of death, and public autopsies are performed in small Bamileke kingdoms as part of the search of causes. Immediately following death, female kin wail, announcing the death to the neighborhood. Burial usually occurs within twenty-four hours, during a one- week period of public mourning (French: deuil; Pidgin: cry-die). Close relatives of the deceased shave their heads and don blue or black clothes of mourning. Approximately one year later, lavish death celebrations are performed (see “Ceremonies”). Widows can resume sexual relations following the death celebrations. Sometimes after this celebration the heir or heiress will exhume and care for ancestral skulls in that improper care of ancestral skulls leads to ancestral wrath, illness, infertility, and even death.